The featured article of Thursday May 18 2006's Wall Street Journal Online, "The Web's Worst New Idea", calls into question the validity of the debate about Net Neutrality. Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the reasoning behind this article.
Of course, the author does make some valid points. The web has had great benefit from the low amount of regulation. Indeed, many great services have surfaced because they were given the freedom to experiment. Had they not been given this chance, the internet would not have acquired much of the appeal it has nowadays. As the author mentions,
Freedom, in other words, has been the Web surfer's friend.
The term "Net Neutrality" deserves some clarification. Net Neutrality was coined in the debate around the amount of restrictions that is allowed to be placed on the equipment and methods used, and the content retrieved, when using a medium like the internet. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the internet, defines it thus:
If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.
Net Neutrality is not, as some suggest, about receiving internet access free of charge. It is not about paying more for higher quality. It is about receiving what you pay for, without hidden restrictions. It is about freedom. Freedom of speech. About preserving freedom to access content regardless of the source.
In China, the government is actively censoring the internet for its citizens. It restricts access to whatever their government does not approve of. In the United States, if nothing is done, it will be companies that are restricting their customers.
Take, for example, the recent controversy surrounding Comcast. Comcast is an Internet Service Provider, meaning that people pay Comcast in return for internet access. Recently, Comcast blocked access to BitTorrent for its customers. BitTorrent is a method of downloading and sharing data that is often used to (illegally) download copyrighted movies. Whether it is due to pressure by the US's movie industry or because they found it too much of a burden, fact is that they decided for their customers what they are allowed to access.
Comcast, however, is also a cable television provider. By restricting access to BitTorrent, they do not only prevent illegal file-sharing, they also hurt legitimate businesses that use BitTorrent as a cheap way to distribute their independent content. These businesses are direct competitors to Comcast's cable television service.
There is, of course, a lot of opposition. Non-profit organization Free Press is running a campaign entitled Save the Internet, and is backed by, among others, Public Knowledge and the Consumers Union. The author of the article I referred to above, however, seems to fear that Net Neutrality regulation will result in a flood of lawsuits concerning, to cite an example mentioned in the article, Google
placing a competitor too low in their search results. Seeing as Google does not provide nor restrict access to certain sources (it merely refers to them, users still are free to choose their search engine), this has nothing to do with Net Neutrality and the fear is thus ungrounded.
Furthermore, the author expresses concerns that regulation will harm the internet. Unfortunately, there is no way to escape regulation. If the Federal Communications Commission does not take action, Internet Service Providers will define their own rules concerning what their customers are and are not allowed to access. The difference, however, is that ISP regulation adds restrictions, while FCC regulation defines entitlements.
Yet, if we are to believe the author, there is no need to worry.
Companies like AOL did not migrate from a "walled garden" to a more-open, Internet-centric model because of mandates from Washington but because the alternative was extinction. Unfortunately, ISP's in the US do not risk extinction. They all own a part of the market and maintain a monopolistic position in that part - there are no competitors and thus no choice for consumers.
Additionally, the author is concerned about defining "rights" of internet users. Specifically, he dislikes the idea that
access to online pornography is now a right, even though in a different context the FCC is increasingly preoccupied with policing "decency" standards on television. Considering the fact that the darker sides of the internet are accessible already, I personally really value my freedom over the decency of a minority that does not do harm to others. Of course, there is still harmful content like child pornography that should be dealt with, however, preventing companies from defining their own rules does not mean the government cannot take action against such activities.
All in all, the only way to preserve freedom on the internet is by adding regulation and entitlements. While
Don't regulate what isn't broken sounds nice, the sad truth is that the current system is breaking, and the US government needs to fix it.
Note: This is an article I wrote for a school assignment.